Musings on Photography

No one buys art, part II

Posted in business, the art world by Paul Butzi on December 13, 2006


In this post on how no one buys art, Andy Chen comments “After mulling it over some more, it seems that only buying art for decor, status, or envy is rather pessimistic. Pessimism doesn’t make something untrue but…. ‘

Oops. I think I’ve not been very clear. Probably that post sounded depressing; it’s not the facts that are depressing, it’s just that it’s winter and the days have been dark and short, and so the snarling wolves of depression have been circling in the periphery of my vision.

I don’t think it’s bad that people buy decor, or mementos. I don’t even think it’s bad that people buy stuff for status reasons, although I think that taken to extremes that doesn’t appear to be a very gratifying life.

I think it’s good. Decor, for instance, is a good thing. We don’t want to live in rickety, uncomfortable shacks with blank walls, we want to live in nice, snug, comfortable homes, and we want to decorate the inside (and sometimes the outside) in ways which make our lives more filled with beauty. That’s a good goal. I think it should be spread as broadly as possible. When choosing drinking glasses, choose the ones that make you feel good when you look a them – you’re going to look at them every day for a long time. (we have great drinking glasses here. Every one is different, they’re lovely colors with a swirly pattern, and drinking a glass of cold milk is a fun, beauty filled experience).

Likewise, mementos. I’m all for Chip and Buffy having fun bodysurfing, and I’m really big on cold Chardonnay while sitting near a roaring, comforting fire. After we have a great experience, it makes sense to want to be reminded that we had a good time, even if right now we have to put on the boots and go out in the cold rain to cut up the tree that just fell across the driveway.

Even the ‘artist by proxy’ thing is fine with me. People are buying something, and having it enhances their life. If buying one of my photographs lets someone move even a teensy bit closer to being the kind of person who walks out onto a foggy, cold beach at 4:30am, I’m all for it. We, all of us, often participate in things by proxy. It’s a way to pass experiences around. I love reading books about solo sailing around the world, or Shackleton’s expedition. If that’s not buying being adventurous by proxy, nothing is. (Even more important, a nice way to read about the privations of Shackleton’s expedition is sitting in a comfy chair, with a nice fire in the fireplace, and a nice big glass of Cabernet on the corner table within easy reach).

So I think the reasons people buy artworks are good reasons. I also think the real reasons people buy an ‘art object’ have little to do with the fact that the object is the outcome of someone’s artistic process, and everything to do with the positive impact possessing the object will have in their life.

What I think is amusing is the amount of conflict artists as a group have about the very realistic observation that no one actually buys art. Artists in general sneer at the idea of selling work to anyone they suspect is just buying decor. Don’t believe me? Ask any artist how they’d feel if a couple looked at their art on the wall in the gallery, and one spouse says “Oh, I love this! It would look so nice over the couch – the yellows will really complement the yellows in the oriental carpet, and I think it goes so well with all the other things we have in the living room. Let’s BUY it!”

Why is that? Why do artists live in mortal fear that someone will buy their art, and hang it on the wall, and derive daily enjoyment from it? Shouldn’t the fact that you’ve gotten to engage in the artistic process, and then someone else got to benefit from the object created as a side effect, and the world got to win twice be something we celebrate rather than lament?

I suspect the reason is that artists in general HATE the idea of the need to make their art saleable. If your artistic process is all about working out your religious issues by making images of religious figures in the medium of animal dung, you can pretty much bet that no one is going to see it in the gallery and decide to buy it to go over the sideboard in their dining room. Some artists are fortunate that the work they want to produce is easily saleable, and artists whose work isn’t are jealous of this, and so they do what every jealous person does – they run down the salable art as ‘commercial’ or ‘shallow’ or ‘not really art’.

That’s natural, and normal. But hiding your head in the sand and pretending that someone will buy the art objects you make just because your artistic process is filled with soul searching even if the art itself is aesthetically aversive – that isn’t very productive.

And, at the back of my mind, I get the nagging feeling that there’s something in there about the current art world’s rejection of beauty, too. It amazes me that in a world so filled with beauty, artists seem to be engaged in a petty game along the lines of “You want art that goes over your sofa, do you? Here! Take this ugly, repellent thing. Put that over your damn sofa, you offensively wealthy, shallow, art-ignorant, insensitive buffoon!”

And what the artists are failing to realize is that they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face, not only because they’ll never sell a darn thing, but also because they’re distorting their art just as much as if they were only making art that would sell.

Do I think artists should avoid making controversial art? Absolutely not. But neither should they avoid making certain kinds of art just because there’s a risk someone will think it goes nicely with their sofa.

10 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on December 13, 2006 at 10:34 am

    IMO, there are many reasons people buy art, including, but certainly not limited to, those you have mentioned.

    I must disagree, however, with 2 points:

    1. you wrote – “I also think the real reasons people buy an ‘art object’ have little to do with the fact that the object is the outcome of someone’s artistic process… – at least in my neck of the woods (literally), much $$$$ is spent on art (to include crafts) because it is made “hand” and not by a machine (rustic Adirondack twig furniture/furishings as an example). Indeed, since I live in a tourism destination, much of the art might fall into your “momento” category although little of it would fall into a “trinkle” category – again, rustic twig furniture that typically starts in the mid-hundred SSSS and goes well into five figures. Certainly this is not high craft/art for the masses but there is nevertheless, a substanial number of buyers in this market who motivated to buy by the fact that it is handmade and of high-craft/artistic value which is very much the “outcome of someone’s artistic process” .

    2. you wrote ““You want art that goes over your sofa, do you? Here! Take this ugly, repellent thing. Put that over your damn sofa, you offensively wealthy, shallow, art-ignorant, insensitive buffoon!“, which you seem to suggest is a primary motivational factor for contemporary artists. Certainly, and especially at the “high-end” of the big gallery art world, some artists play the “system” but in my experience much of what is considered to be “anti-establishment” is the result of genuine artistic expression. We live in world that is filled with much “ugliness” – cultural, environmental, political, etc. – and I tend to identify with Hockney’s view that “If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He’s not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he’s really needed..

    And frankly, most of the best art the world has seen was ctreated by artists, who, for their era, have “seen” the world in a new and “shocking” way.

    In any event, I’m startring a gallery venture that is based on the notion that people will buy photography, first and foremost, as art, not as decor, status, or momento. The “people”/market that I think is out there is photographers – not artists by proxy – actual “hard-working” photographers who would love to collect photography but can’t because of the high cost of doing so.

    My gallery will be based on Brooks Jensen’s idea of “real people prices” – prints that sell for less than $50US, signed and numbered (open edition).

    We’ll see how it goes.

  2. Anonymous said, on December 13, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    I also agree that people buy art for many different reasons. And, as a full-time artist, I’ve worked on identifying with the plethora of reasons.

    Since sales are a primary goal of mine, I’m OK with those that are looking for mere decor. Or something to match their sofa/rug/poodle. I know these aren’t the most satisfying sales for me (I love the feeling of knowing that an original is going home with a “good family”).

    So, I’m an artist that likes to sell, regardless of a buyer’s motivation. TBH, the only real “hang up” I’ve discovered about myself is that I’d love to be able to afford to NOT sell to people with socially conservative “values”… that’s when your line starts going through my head:

    “Put that over your damn sofa, you offensively wealthy, shallow, art-ignorant, insensitive [Republican] buffoon!”

  3. Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said, on December 13, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Hey Paul. The best damn blog post I’ve read in ages.

    I’ll buy it. It’ll look good over the sofa.

    I love the idea that some people are distorting their art to make in unsaleable in order to avoid distorting their art to make it saleable.

    In fact it is so good, I’ll have two. Does it come in green as well?

  4. Lisa Call said, on December 13, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    I agree with Colin – excellent post. I’ll buy one also – but would prefer it in purple

  5. Anonymous said, on December 13, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Reminds me of when my brother and I went backpacking around Europe in the summer of ’85. One day in Germany we got in a silly mood and pretended we were a filthy rich American couple, driving through one charming village after another and saying to each other, “I like that one. Let’s buy it!”

  6. Anonymous said, on December 14, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    I’m guilty of decorating a room to match a large predominantly green print that I had made.

    All the furnishings were picked to co-ordinate with the print.

    Where does that fall in the continuum ?

  7. Dave New said, on January 11, 2007 at 11:10 am

    I’d like to ‘collect’ prints, but cost and space (in particular) slow me down. All the walls in our home are already covered in ‘stuff’, and being 5-10 years from retiring and going RVing full-time (as a surprisingly large number of your potential customers are also considering doing in the near future) means having virtually no wall space to spare in a typical RV, aside from a large-screen HDTV.

    So, rather than accumulating prints, I’m thinking about how to best enjoy my image collection on the only display device that will be promiment in our RV (aside from my laptop screen).

  8. Brandon Smith said, on May 3, 2007 at 6:40 am

    Dave’s comment really brings home the digital revolution in photography — he wants digital files to display on an electronic device, not a print. Many years ago, when I first got into photography, I spent hours and hours learning how to make prints, getting shin-splints from marathon sessions in the darkroom, studying Adams’ The Print and so forth.

    After a long hiatus, I’ve come back to photography hoping to actually sell some this time for “art” prices rather than the memento prices I’d sold them for before. And I find myself spending hours in front of a monitor, getting it to look good there, and as I do I’m beginning to think in terms of my monitor as the display device rather than a piece of paper.

    It’s beginning to look like the end product of my art is now a digital image rather than print. Now my question is, how do you sell digital images when they are so easy to copy?
    Particularly when a copy is identical to the original?

  9. […] epiphany for me are encouraged to go read Art is a Verb, Not a Noun, People Don’t Buy Art and No One Buys Art Part II, and perhaps The Artist’s Way of Commerce. Posted in art is a verb, business, print […]

  10. Larry Thornberry said, on June 7, 2008 at 7:14 am

    After two years of living in Colombia, I am currently in the middle of the second exposition of my photos. In the exposition, there are both photos with a “message or story” and photos with brilliant colors that would look good in someone’s office or home. Every photo is the result of a digital workflow. That said, beyond the actual work itself, there is a quality that can be achieved through careful digital darkroom manipulation and high quality printing with archival inks and professional paper. This is what makes a photo a finished work of art. Many people have told me that my photos look like paintings. I wasn’t trying for this result, but it seems that there can be a crossover work that can appeal to people who both buy photos and paintings.


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